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Promoting A Sense Of Self: Experiences And Activities

The thinking of infants and toddlers changes as they grow older and begin to develop an understanding of themselves in relationship to, and separate from, others. This lesson will focus on how experiences and activities influence an infant’s or toddler’s developing sense of self.

  • Describe how experiences and activities support a sense of self.
  • Discuss ways your interactions and experiences with families can influence sense of self.
  • Identify signs of stress in yourself and use techniques to reduce stress.



Think of the many experiences you have had that influence your life. You may have family traditions, customs, beliefs, and values that you developed growing up. Some families share cultural traditions that center on religion, holidays, or other beliefs. These traditions might be attending worship services, playing cultural games, gathering for specific events, or following a set of behaviors that adhere to one’s belief system. There are other factors beyond culture and religion that can be included when thinking about experiences that influence children. Perhaps a family prioritizes spending time in nature and takes their children camping and hiking. Athletics, political beliefs, and occupations are often woven through families and children’s experiences. For example, many families have long legacies of military service, teaching, or being fans of a particular sports team. What experiences from your childhood have influenced your identity?

Experiences and Activities that Promote Infant and Toddler Sense of Self

As an infant and toddler caregiver, take time to observe young children and recognize moments of joy, surprise, wonder, and learning. Observing infants and toddlers and reflecting on those observations can help you continue to promote secure and caring relationships, as well as an understanding of and appreciation for the growth and development of each infant and toddler in your care. The thinking of infants and toddlers changes as they grow older and begin to develop an understanding of themselves in relationship to and separate from others. Therefore, observation continues to be an important strategy as you consider interactions and plan experiences and activities to support the developing sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care.

There are many ways to help the infants and toddlers in your care feel important, understood, confident, and successful. The chart below lists a few. Which of these could you add to or increase in your daily teaching practices?

  1. Ensure environments have enough adults available to be close by and respond quickly to infants and toddlers. You can do this by:

    • Giving children the majority of your focus (rather than paperwork, restocking, etc.)
    • Comforting and soothing crying infants and toddlers.
    • Smiling and talking with infants and toddlers.
  2. Support infants and toddlers who may be experiencing distress when separating from their family member. You can do this by:

    • Listening to and supporting the child’s family member who may be sad or concerned.
    • Helping to create and maintain rituals for hellos and goodbyes.
    • Providing mobile infants and toddlers with family photographs to carry around or post them on the wall at their eye level.
    • Inviting children to draw pictures or write (whether pretend or real) to the people they miss.
  3. Support infant and toddler self-regulation. You can do this by:

    • Talking to or singing calmly to an infant.
    • Comforting infants and toddlers when they appear uncertain about a situation.
    • Reflecting on your view of tantrums and whether you see them as a normal part of development and a way children express a need, or as a "bad behavior.".
    • Staying calm and reassuring infants or toddlers you can help them with their strong emotions: “It looks like you are really upset. I’m going to stay right here with you.”
    • Provide rhythm or calming repetition – rocking, swaying, walking, singing, gentle pats, steady breaths.
  4. Support infants and toddlers through responsive relationship experiences. You can do this by:

    • Talking with an infant or toddler about how you could understand what he or she was trying to tell you: “When you cry, I can tell something is not right and you need me.”
    • Communicating with infants’ and toddlers’ families about home experiences that support relationship building, such as shared meals, bedtime routines, reading books, and playing together.
  5. Support infants and toddlers to learn about emotions. You can do this by:

    • Mirroring an infant’s facial expressions (e.g., smiling back at a smiling infant).
    • Thinking about the facial expressions you use during moments when mobile infants are checking in to determine the safety of a situation.
    • Making facial expressions and modulating your voice to highlight different emotions while reading books and stories.
    • Naming emotions children are experiencing: “I see that you are crying. Are you feeling sad that you dropped your toy?”
  6. Let infants and toddlers know you enjoy being with them. You can do this by:

    • Using infant’s and toddler’s names during interactions and experiences throughout the day.
    • Letting children know you enjoy being with them, “I’m having fun making music with you!” “I’m so happy you’re here today.”
    • Trying to understand the intentions of infants and toddlers and put their intention into words for them. “You are working so hard to get that book! Stretch stretch! Almost there!”
  7. Support and show interest in children's development and accomplishments. You can do this by:

    • Letting mobile infants know you are watching them while encouraging exploration—“I see you crawling so fast! Look at you go!”
    • Exploring gender with toddlers and respecting the ways in which they are learning about gender and what it means within their family system and culture. “Why does putting the scarf on your head make you a girl? Do all girls have long hair?”
    • Validating and encouraging children’s interests: “You really love this bunny, huh? It’s so nice to have a special toy like that.” “Watching you pour and mix the sand makes me think we should do some cooking next week. What do you think about that?”
  8. Support infants and toddlers with temperament in mind. You can do this by:

    • Gently helping infants and toddlers who have irregular rhythms establish consistent routines for sleeping, feeding or eating, diapering, etc., while also meeting children’s unique needs
    • Helping infants and toddlers who are slow to warm up to people feel safe and comfortable around new people and with new experiences.
    • Finding experiences and circumstances that help toddlers to focus during play.
  9. Support infants and toddlers by providing a variety of carefully selected materials. You can do this by:

    • Ensuring materials are readily available that foster development in all domains – social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic.
    • Providing a variety of a single item, e.g., offering children a collection of balls that are different sizes, colors, and textures.
    • Choosing sturdy books with photographs of faces; read or talk about the pictures in books with children every day.
    • Recognizing that even infants have needs and interests for you to respond to. For example, the baby who is teething needs more chewable toys, and children who are mobile need steps and soft mats for climbing.


Strengthening Families

Families are critical partners in your programs. By serving children and families, you have a commitment to respect families and to help each child feel proud of their identities and culture. Recall these family-centered practices that were introduced in the Family Engagement course:

Family-Centered Practices



Families are the most important decision-makers in a child’s life.

  • We learn about families’ ideas and preferences.
  • We provide choices in programming.
  • We involve families in program leadership.
  • We involve families in decision-making.

Families are unique and their differences enrich our programs.

  • We honor and respect diversity.
  • We involve all the important people in a child’s life.
  • We engage and involve families.
  • We develop responsive and reciprocal relationships.
  • We represent families in our programs.

Families are resilient. 

  • We learn about families’ strengths, needs, and circumstances. 
  • We connect families with resources.
  • We build families’ strengths.

Families are central to development and learning.

  • We share information with families. 
  • We listen to families.
  • We view families as their child’s first teacher.
  • We respect families’ expertise about their child.

Families are our partners.

  • We use respectful, responsive, and two-way communication.
  • We reach out to families.
  • We involve families in all aspects of our program.

These practices help families feel respected and valued. They also help families gain confidence and a sense of purpose in your program.

Families everywhere go through times when they need help accessing information to help them navigate challenging circumstances, and you may be the person they come to for help! A family member may have a question or concern, and you may be asked to provide information, suggestions, or recommendations about a variety of topics, such as child development, challenging behavior, literacy, in- and out-of-school activities, community connections, healthcare providers, and so forth. Sometimes, you may have answers and sometimes you may have to look for answers. When a family member shares a need or concern with you, always respect their privacy.

Cultural practices deeply influence how adults support children’s development of self. All children develop in the context of their cultural background and their family’s values. It is important that you demonstrate respect for each family and child enrolled in your program even if their customs or beliefs are unfamiliar to you or contrast with your practices, You will need to build relationships with each family to understand their values, beliefs, and circumstances. Likewise, having written policies and program rules posted can assist family members in understanding the caregiving practices their children will encounter in your program. Make sure this information is accessible to all families by making it available in multiple languages and formats.

Demonstrating mutually respectful and trusting relationships for all children and families must always be your goal. Your role is critical to maintaining a warm, responsive environment where children feel safe to develop their sense of self.

Relationships are Essential

As you have learned throughout this course, relationships with important adults are the key to children’s sense of self and their social and emotional well-being, which in turn is the foundation for their long-term success in relationships, school, and beyond. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you have the opportunity to help children learn that the world is safe, other people are good, and they are loved and important. It cannot be overstated how important these initial impressions are to infants and toddlers and their lives thereafter. With that in mind, aim every day to

  • Make infants and toddlers feel safe, comfortable, and cared for
  • Celebrate their accomplishments
  • Show all children respect through the way you talk and interact with them
  • Listen to what they say, and respond with interest and appreciation
  • Be present and engaged with children in play at their level

Supporting Yourself by Reducing Stress: Taking Care of Yourself while Taking Care of Others

Many of us are accustomed to saying “yes” to everything that is asked of us for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Learning how to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate, and it shows you know your limits and are able to prioritize your needs. It is also important that you learn to let go of stress. Here are a few tips:

  • Consider keeping a journal. It can be therapeutic to write the day’s events and your perspectives on paper. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you be mindful about the positive aspects of your life.
  • Make connections. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Go out for lunch or a cup of coffee with a friend. Speak to the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These small moments can help you feel connected and supported.
  • Try to get regular exercise, which can help you feel better, sleep better, and cope better with life’s daily stressors. Healthful eating can make a difference, too.
  • Remember to breathe. As we get stressed out, we tend to breathe shallower. By taking a moment to take a few deep breaths we are not only taking time for ourselves but helping to lower our stress levels.

Common Signs of Stress in Adults

  • Aches and pains (headaches, neck or back pain, etc.)
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • More colds or illnesses
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Anger
  • Short temper
  • Increase in alcohol or drug use
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Overeating “comfort foods”

When you see signs of stress in yourself, take action. You will find stress-busting resources in the Apply section. Another aspect of developing a strong self-concept and self-esteem is to learn to use self-care practices. Self-care is choosing to engage in activities required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being.

Self-care practices can bring staff and families together, too. Parents may want to teach a cooking class or help with the program’s garden. Seek out resources in your community to bring self-care practices to your center. You may find some wonderful volunteers who are eager to share their expertise.

Watch as these caregivers describe what they do for self-care and the importance of it in their work.

The Caregiver's Sense of Self: Self-Care Practices

Caregivers provide examples of how they practice self-care and why they believe it is important for young children.


Watch as these caregivers provide experiences and activities that help children develop a positive sense of self. Reflect on the way they respond to challenges children face in their lives, the environment, or the materials, and how these reactions affect infants’ and toddlers’ self-image. In addition, pay attention to the suggestions offered on how to provide support to infants’ and toddlers’ in military families. How could you do these in your own program?

Promoting Sense of Self: Experiences And Activities

Watch as caregivers provide nurturing and responsive experiences and activities that help children develop a positive self-image, with attention paid to how to support infants’ and toddlers’ in military families.


Infants and toddlers experience stress as a normal part of development and learning. Stress can result from different experiences, positive and negative. While you cannot shield all infants and toddlers from stressful experiences, your caring, safe, and predictable relationship with an infant and toddler can help protect them from the effects of stress. Consider the following strategies as you support infants and toddlers experiencing stress:

  • Stay close by infants and toddlers, reassure them, and let them know you are watching as they move away and explore.
  • Provide simple explanations for stressful experiences using a calm, soothing voice. “You miss your daddy. He is thinking about you and will come after nap and his job is done. Let’s look at his picture together.”
  • Let infants and toddlers know when you are leaving and when you are coming back.
  • Help infants and toddlers put strong emotions into words.


Use the activity, Easing the Separation Process for Infants, Toddlers, and Families and reflect on strategies that you might use in your work to support infants and toddlers experiencing separation anxiety. Share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Consider preparing a short article for your program newsletter about separation anxiety and how families can manage it.

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Staff members that are working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Self Concept Activity Plan handout to develop a self concept learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).


Use the attached resources to help you take steps to promote your own wellness. The first attachment includes a list of resources about stress management. Spend some time exploring the different websites for information and ideas about reducing stress and promoting wellness in your life. The second attachment shares ideas you can use when setting boundaries and preserving time for the people and events that fulfill you by learning to say “No.”


A set of beliefs and actions that influence how caregivers engage families
Engaging in activities required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health


Which of the following is a good strategy for helping infants and toddlers learn about emotions?
A seven-month-old in your care has recently started crying when their caregivers leave. What can you do to make drop-off time a supportive experience for both the child and the family?
True or False? Observing infants and toddlers can help you positively impact their sense of self.
References & Resources

10 simple steps to help destress. (April 24, 2012). Harvard Health Publishing.

Carter, C. (November 13, 2014). 21 ways to ‘give good no.’ Mind and Body.

DC Department of Behavioral Health, Prevention and Early Intervention Programs, Healthy Futures. (2016). Understanding separation anxiety in infants and young children.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Johnson, J. (2007). Finding your smile again: A child care professional's guide to reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Redleaf Press.

Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping your smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. Redleaf Press.

Managing stress: Create calm in your career. (n.d.). Mind Tools.

Mayo clinic staff. (March 18, 2021). Stress relievers: Tips to tame stress. Mayo Clinic.

Relaxation exercises. (n.d.). Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. 

Relaxation Techniques. (September 2020). Relaxation techniques for stress relief. Help Guide. 

Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. J. (2014). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. Routledge.